Beyond Wikipedia — online resources for historical novelists

Beyond Wikipedia — online resources for historical novelists

TypewriterAre you doing NaNoWriMothis year? In case you don’t know, NanoWriMo is an annual novel writing ‘competition’, which you ‘win’ by starting and completing a short (50,000 word) novel during the month of November. Everyone can win! Some of the authors do end up getting published, but don’t bank on it being your road to fame. On the other hand, if you’ve always wanted to write a novel, November is as good a time as any, and there’s a certain benefit in the encouragement of doing it ‘with’ others. 50,000 words isn’t quite a novel in the accepted sense — publishers look for 70,000 to 80,000 words for a first novel, and then allow you to go up from that once you’re established.

If you’re up for writing, then you may be wondering about ‘research’. Research is a bugbear for many authors. The fear of getting the details wrong can bring on the dreaded ‘writers’ block’, or so it’s said. 1. There are a number of ways out of the ‘research’ conundrum:

  1. Write complete fantasy, with trolls, dragons, bull-headed men, man-headed bulls and anything else you want. Requires a lot of imagination, though, and you have to keep it all straight in your head.
  2. Write science-fiction set in the future. You’re making all of the culture and accoutrements up, and, unless you get your science badly wrong, no-one can really tell you you’re doing it wrong.
  3. Set everything in your own lifetime in surroundings you know or knew well. Works great for the grittily realistic autobiographical or semi-autobiographical stuff. However, if you want to spread your wings a little, it may be a little constraining.
  4. Use books and the internet to get you all the details you want. Ian Mortimer‘s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England is an invaluable guide to the middle ages for those who have never lived there, and The Timetables of History are great for fitting things into context. But if you are writing historical fiction, or period fiction, or anything set at a definite time in the past, you can quickly spend more ordering books from Amazon or in the local branch of Waterstones than you would have done if you’d gone waterskiing for a month instead of writing. The internet, on the other hand, is the world’s biggest and most successful time-waster. You won’t even need to resolve to writer’s block, daytime TV or the other means of procrastination if you start researching willy nilly on the internet while writing.
With Number 4 in mind, I thought I might offer some of the resources I’ve dug up over the past year. The immediate context is that I’m getting ready for my NaNoWriMo novel called (possibly) “The Final Adventure of Maximilian Heath the Impostor”, or possibly just “The Impostor”. It’s an expansion of the character I created for The Montenegran Imposture, which was recently author-picked on, and it is set in exactly 1862. This is one of the problems of writing historical fiction — it has to be set in a particular time and place, not (like the Conan stories) in some long forgotten ‘age’.


The scourge of University lecturers, Wikipedia is Google’s first answer to most questions about stuff in general. Wikipedia isn’t much cop as an actual source of research because it is very rarely detailed enough to tell you what you want to know. Don’t get me wrong on this — I love Wikipedia, and firmly believe it will one day evolve into Encylopedia Galactica and we can all live in Foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy. What Wikipedia is great for, though, is as a gateway to primary and secondary sources of other information. Very often the Wikipedia article won’t give you the flavour you want, but the articles it refers you to will.

Proceedings of the Royal Society

Just online for the first time this week, The Proceedings of the Royal Society are the complete archive of all the wonderful, world-changing and sometimes just wacky papers brought before the world’s premiere scientific society since the 17th century. This means that you can enter the year you’re interested in and see first hand what the boffins were talking about, and, just as importantly, get how they talked into your mind.

Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg is a crowdsourced project to scan, convert to text, proof and edit all the old books which are out of copyright and the project can get its hands on. Right now they’ve got 36,000 tomes online. This is nowhere near even a fraction of all the books printed in the last couple of hundred years, but it is still a huge number and there will generally be at least one obscure book — perhaps journals of a south coast ramblers’ association — published in the year you’re interested in. Whether or not the book is any good (there’s a reason why most books get forgotten about), you’ll get a fascinating insight into the kind of trivia that never gets recorded in history books and never, ever on Wikipedia. The only downside is that you can’t search directly by publication year, so you’ll have to be a bit creative with how you search.

Google images

A picture is perhaps worth a thousand words, so a few words about the thousands of pictures you can pull up on Google images. Unlike Google’s web page search — which tends to produce first Wikipedia, then historical clubs, then some books on Amazon, and then a host of e-commerce aggregating sites which offer to sell you “17th century grave stone cutter”, but when you click on them say “we couldn’t find an exact match for 17th century grave stone cutter, so here are some sites offering Britney Spears merchandise” — (deep breath) — unlike Google’s web page search, I say, the images search throws up a whole heap of old photographs and dated paintings. If you’re only going back as far as the 19th century, then you really can type in “railway carriage journey, 1862”, and it will throw up a load of images of which some of them will be woodcuts in the Illustrated London News and some will be actual photographs. There’s also almost always a painting by someone of something you want done in the year specified. Gazing at an image for ten minutes is a much better way of getting your mind into seeing what it was like than any amount of reading someone else’s text.

The Gough Map

Going a bit further back now, the Gough Map is a marvellously detailed early medieval map of the whole of Britain, now fully available online. You can zoom in on the area of the country you’re interested in and see what villages there actually were way back when. Up until the creation of new towns and the urbanisation of Britain from the 17th century, very few villages or towns disappeared, and very few new ones were invented.

Google Ngram Viewer

Though it may sound suspiciously like maths, the Google Ngram Viewer is a beautifully simple way of finding out when particular words or phrases became popular. You type in some text, and it searches all of Google Books from 1800 (in themselves another good source, like Project Gutenberg), and then produces a graph. Another click of the mouse and it will find you all the books in a particular range of dates so you can read them directly. So, let’s say I want to know if they are saying “knife” (sounds a bit modern), or “dagger” (but that sounds a bit Shakespearian) in 1862. For good measure, I might add “poignard”, “sword”, “cutlass”, “rapier”. A moment later and I have my answer: “dagger” was definitely a term on its way out even in 1862, with knife on a steady climb since the 1820s. Poignard and rapier get almost no coverage at all, and sabre gets less than dagger. But “sword” is more than twice as popular as “knife”. It is declining, but it only finally drops below “knife” and stays there in 1980 in books that Google has indexed, and even then it stays close to it. You might have the same question about “gun”, “pistol”, “revolver”. Gun, of course, is always more popular, but in 1862 “revolver” has only been in the language for about ten years — it’s a new word, with all the resonance that new words have.
Anyway, that’s six of the best, as we say in 19th century England. I would be interested to hear what other online resources you might have come up with aside from these which might be of interest to the historical (or period) novelist — anything that gives a bit more focus that simply “searching the web” with all the opportunities for distraction that affords.

Coda: historical or period fiction?

What’s a historical novel? How does it differ from a period novel? The Historical Novel Society reckons that anything set more than fifty years ago is essentially a historical novel, including alternate histories, pseudo-histories, time-slip novels, historical fantasies and multiple-time novels. That seems inordinately broad to me. I would count alternate histories as science-fiction in many cases, and I certainly wouldn’t want to include magical tales of King Arthur in the term ‘historical’. Wikipedia, rather more sensibly in my view, offers: “Historical fiction presents readers with a story that takes place during a notable period in history, and usually during a significant event in that period. Historical fiction often presents actual events from the point of view of fictional people living in that time period.” That seems pretty good to me, especially as the editor of that article goes on to point out that it’s still fiction and will break with what ‘really’ happened sooner or later.
What’s a period novel, then? Wikipedia is silent on this question, but Joseph Twadell Shipley, as brought to us by Google Books from the Dictionary of World Literature, 1964, suggests “The period novel written in the spirit of historical research or antiquarianism, is a detailed recreation of a past society”. He further adds that the historical romance is an “escape from the tedium and perplexity of the present to the historical exploits of rulers and adventurers of the distant past”, whereas the historical novel proper “does not evade reality but sharpens and increases it”. This seems to me to be a fair cop: set a novel in the past, but not linked to particular events, and you have a period novel. Link it to notable historical events and explore the world seriously in that way, and it’s a historical novel. Fictionalise the great figures of history, and its a historical romance. There you are, simples.

Show 1 footnote

  1. A word of caution — if you’re writing fiction, it doesn’t have to be true. In fact, it can’t be, otherwise it isn’t fiction. Fixating on whether they used glasses or goblets in medieval Europe won’t make your book a better book

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